Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The finish line with Douglas and Richard

The lamentable decline in a sense of history has been cried shrilly in many countries, with Canada being no exception. For a nation admitting more newcomers per year than any other, the question of passing on the narrative of a very improbable nation is no easy task. History isn’t a science. Like a careful reading of scripture or an enduring work of literature, mining it seems to array us with a variety of new perspectives, repeatedly. More than perspective even; history (or the knowledge of it) allows us to be a part of a story that began before us – one that we hope to continue. While there is no shortage of those who enter Canada unscrupulously or for its perceived largesse, I firmly believe that most newcomers want to be part of Canada’s story.


Last Wednesday, Vincent Lam and Charles Foran sat down to discuss the lives of Maurice Richard and Tommy Douglas. The life of a Prairie preacher and a Québecois hockey player could not seem more different (and indeed it was) but the discussion demonstrated how sometimes the mythmaking, nationalistic and borderline-jingoistic history (which the Québec sovereignty movement has appropriated) needs exactly the antidote of the nuance a broader historical perspective delivers. It is commonplace in Québec patriotic circles to imagine as if everything originated in its pristine form within its borders (as indeed Daniel Poliquin pointed out).  But it was Douglas’s idea of a universal health care system in Saskatchewan which found its way into the rest of Canada – Québec inclus.


Heroes, especially athletes, are often victims of being frozen in the memories of their fans. We often forget that the “morning after” can be a very disorienting time when the crowds now have others to cheer after their retirement. While Richard’s suspension in 1955, sparking the moments may have well been the watershed moment in the La Révolution Tranquille, he was largely relegated as a man who belonged to the old order of Quebeckers who were religious and subservient – thus deserving of contempt. It was also later in his life that Richard travelled Anglo-Canada outside of Canada to discover that he was a hero to British Columbians as much as Easterners. As Foran noted, Richard allowed his game on the ice to do the talking while being notoriously reticent. Perhaps athletes shouldn’t and needn’t give interviews at all.


Vincent Lam’s insights as a physician, delivered in his gentle manner, shed light into Douglas’s life and achievement. As a socialist Douglas was apparently very much to the right of the NDP spectrum at the time. Witness the 17 consecutive balanced budgets he delivered as premier. As with athletes, sometimes politicians are remembered (or punished) in their earlier incarnations. Douglas’s small stature belied his tenacious, witty quips and his boxing career: where he won consecutive Lightweight Champion of Manitoba in 1922 and 1923. Douglas was a rare politician who followed wherever his integrity seemed to lead – his most pointed vindication perhaps his labelling of Trudeau’s invoking of the War Measures Act of 1970 as excessive.


The end of the Extraordinary Canadians Series (yes I do hold hope for some encore entries) spelt a personal feeling of warm nostalgia and cold quicksand. It was exactly at its launch over two years ago that I underwent a transmogrification; as the last phases of figuring out and assimilating into this vast land ended and a veritable Canadian anew, was. I’m not one who has a penchant for definite moments denoting personal change (preferring instead the unremitting flares which form and unform our character) but if I had to pick any to clearly point out and say “I belong to Canada and she belongs to me!” this was it. Sitting in the solemn pews of St. Brigid’s listening to Adrienne Clarkson, John Ralston Saul and Margaret MacMillan was the moulting of immigrant to citizen. This is by far my favourite series the Writer’s Fest has put up. I hope this series finds a long shelf life in many homes and libraries. Now if only they’d convince Lawrence Hill to do the biography of Oscar Peterson...